Facelift for One of The Nation’s Most Used Racecourses
July 13, 2012
CAMDEN, N.J. - For years, the Cooper River in Camden County, New Jersey, has been a favored site for rowing regattas. This week it is home to the 2012 USRowing Club National Championships and it has draw a record number of entries for the event.
But it has its issues.
Shallow in some areas, obscured by overgrown vegetation in others, and prone to varying water levels, it is a collecting point for floating debris coming in from streams and rain runoff and has been known as an occasional boat killer.
“All three of our boats ran aground somewhere this week,” said Marin Rowing Association head coach Sandy Armstrong, who this summer is also coaching the USRowing junior women’s world championship eight.
That will all change soon as the river and Cooper River Park is about to undergo a five-year, multimillion-dollar facelift beginning this winter because both rowing and local officials recognize its potential as a world class rowing venue.
“This venue has all the elements that you need to stage large multiday regattas,” said club national championship chief referee Lloyd McDonald.
While some 2,100 will compete on it this week during the five-day national championship, it is also the perennial home of the Intercollegiate Rowing Associations Championships which has run here every year since 1995 with the exception of 2009 when it was contested in Sacramento, Calif
It has seen Olympic trials, was the catalyst of an explosion in high school rowing in Camden County, and is arguably one of the nation’s most favored straight 2000-meter racecourses.
“The course itself is first rate,” said McDonald.
“There is really a lot of space for boat storage and spectators. There is great access and great visibility itself. You can get up to the start line watch boats start and down to the finish line to see boats finish, so it really provides the folks that come here with a great competitive rowing experience.
The University of Wisconsin - Development Camp was willing to make the two-day trip from Madison because they were confident the course set-up provided fair racing conditions.
“There is great water and it’s usually pretty protected,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant coach Karen Rigsby. “It’s fair across the lanes. It’s always great to be able to race here because there are places for spectators everywhere down the course, and at the thousand meters, as opposed to the last two-fifty which is the case for a lot of courses.”
Perfecting one of the most frequently used venues involves cutting away a few invasive trees, removing inconvenient water level discrepancies and showcasing preexisting facilities.
This occasion is the first time US Junior National Team coach Sandy Armstrong has brought a crew to race on the Cooper. She was able to offer some insight on the downfalls of the course.
Having seen quite a few courses over the years, Armstrong said that despite the boat damage, there are many positive aspects of the course.
“Certainly the boat house is a lovely facility and that set up is a great. It is a good area to support this level of racing with the upper dock and side area.”
With a large, modern facility and generally good water conditions, the initial plans to dredge and clean up the river and stabilize all of the banks were expanded.
“Basically it’s two fold. It’s a $30 million dollar project to enhance the whole park, meaning the river and the surrounding grounds,” said Camden County Boat House manager Jamie Stack.
“The idea is to make the course coherent from start to finish. The start tower and finish tower will all match the boat house outside appearance.”
Other proposed upgrades include a new dock system for the finish area and better sight lines for spectators through the removal of unwelcome vegetation along the river.
For competitors, the most beneficial improvement will be the changes made to the actual waterway. “We are going to dredge the river so it is six lanes, all even depth, top to bottom.
Five million dollars have already been secured for the first phase of the project, the river overhaul.
The Camden County Freeholders are intricately involved in getting the rest of the funding from the counties to beautify the riverbank portions of the 346.55-acre Cooper River Park.
Sections of the park belong to the towns of Collingswood, Pennsauken, Cherry Hill and Haddon Township.
“The Freeholders Office is the one that started working on the other $25 million. So they are securing all that funding,” said Stack. “I guess their thinking is we’re improving the river to welcome people in. Why don’t we make it welcoming to people who come here everyday?”
The comprehensive esthetic and logistical changes are expected to take roughly five years and the project has been broken down into nine zones.
A separate project also taking place during this time period is the surrounding roadwork.
According to the website for the State of New Jersey Department of Transportation, the Route 30/130 project involves completely replacing the Cooper Bridge due to “conditions of the structure and substructure.”
Construction for the structure located just above the start of the racecourse is currently underway and the project is expected to be complete in two to three years.
At this time six local high schools, Rutgers University-Camden and a the Cooper River Rowing Club, a masters program, all practice out of the boathouse on a regular basis and regular regatta cohosts, the Camden County Freeholders, Cooper River Rowing Association and Rutgers University Alumni Crew hope to avoid interference with the rowing season and the intercollegiate championships, in particular.
In 2012 alone, there were 14 regattas from March to November held on the Cooper River.
“I think ideally the river work will happen this winter and next winter and possibly next spring. Spring of 2014 is the end goal for all of the river work to happen,” said Stack.
“We may possibly lose some of the spring season to where we couldn’t host regattas.
What we are trying to do for our daily activity usage is to keep at least three lanes open because in the spring we have 500 rowers here so we don’t lose that for our local crews. I would imagine at least the beginning part of our spring schedule would be impacted, but it really depends on how much dirt and sediment have to be removed and how dirty it is,” he said.
The strong contingent of local rowers and several fans of the course countrywide are eager to see the course and sounding area improved, according to Stack.
The ultimate goal, once the project is complete, is to draw a further reaching fan base through international competition.
FISA, the governing body responsible for rowing as an international sport. On prior occasions, it has indicated that some aspects of the venue make it unsuitable for hosting a world championship, Stack said.
However, he still hopes there is a possibility that Camden could be the sight of other international competitions.
“When all these improvements are complete, we would be able to host a junior worlds or under 23 worlds. So once all of these improvements are completed, we will be putting in host bids.”
The third day of heats for the 2012 USRowing Club National Championships are underway on the Cooper River racecourse. Semifinal races will begin this evening and continue through tomorrow afternoon. Finals for the national championship will begin on Saturday evening and conclude around midday on Sunday.
For event information and a full, detailed schedule of the 2012 USRowing Club National Championships, visit: http://www.usrowing.org/Events/ClubNationals.aspx
Live streaming of the finals can be seen at: http://www.ustream.tv/usrowing
Following the event, video clips can be purchased at http://www.usrowing.org/Multimedia/VideoDownloads.asp
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